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Security theater in pink and blue

The hazards of flying while trans

I hate flying. Always have, from my first flight at the age of 17 when I was in a constant state of fear from the moment we started backing away from the gate. Thirty-one years later, my heart still pounds during taxiing and takeoff, but I no longer panic at the slightest hint of turbulence.

Still, I loathe every aspect of air travel, especially the increasing restrictions brought on by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). I’m convinced these tactics are more a show of security theater than actually protecting US-Americans from terrorist attacks. And since my legal transition to male four years ago, I have even more reasons to hate the TSA.

Before my first post-transition flight in 2014, I rushed to get my vital identification documents—social security card, state ID (I don’t drive), and passport —updated with my new name and transitioned sex. Though I’m agender, I’ve transitioned from female to male for legal and medical purposes, and prefer to be read as male in a world where most people do not understand or acknowledge non-binary genders. I wanted to avoid any travel delays or embarrassment brought on by mismatched documentation.

As it turned out, I was not selected for additional security screening on that flight, but this was not thanks to my efforts to get my documents in order. You see, the TSA does not ask for confirmation of gender through ID documents. Instead, a TSA agent eyeballs each passenger as they approach the body scanner, and — seriously—presses a pink or blue button to indicate what sex they think that person is. Any body parts or accessories (such as the chest binders worn by many transmasculine people) that don’t match up with what is expected for a person of that sex get highlighted on their screen as “anomalies”.

You can see photos of the TSA interface in trans and intersex professor and activist Cary Gabriel Costello’s informative (and heartbreaking) blog post about traveling while trans. The agency confirms their male/female screening assumptions in a news article about another trans activist, Mia Satya, who was subjected to an invasive inspection of her genitals.

So while I was legally male at the time of that 2014 flight, I was early in my hormonal transition, and still regularly misgendered as female. I’m now convinced that the TSA agent in that case pressed the pink button, thus my breasts (which I did not and still do not bind) did not set off any alarms. Hence, my ridiculous situation was that being mis-gendered gave me a smoother travel experience than what was to come in the years to follow.

After several years of testosterone therapy, my hairline receded and my beard grew in. People eventually stopped calling me “Ma’am” and “Miss”, which was refreshing; though I don’t care for any gendered honorifics, hearing “Sir” doesn’t trigger my dysphoria as much as being addressed as a woman. I still have my breasts, but am generally able to conceal them through judicious layering, as much as it annoys me that I can’t dress in a more comfortable manner without inviting ridicule and harassment.

Now when I approach the body scanner at an airport, the TSA agents press the blue button. My chest has become an “anomaly”, as a bearded, balding person clearly could not have breasts, and therefore must be a potential terrorist or smuggler, hiding explosives or contraband under their shirt. I was being gendered correctly — more or less, as again, male is the most accurate reading I can realistically hope for— but at the cost of being singled out for special (mis)treatment.

The author waits for a flight at San Francisco International Airport, July 2018. They are wearing a colorful batik short-sleeved shirt and blue jeans. Photo by Ziggy Tomcich.

My most recent outbound flight was a redeye, departing from San Francisco on the eve of the Fourth of July. My partner and I discovered on our way to the airport that our departure would be delayed for over an hour, so though the airport was more crowded than I expected for that time of night, I wasn’t too concerned about the time. (Normally I plan to arrive a full two hours before takeoff, to allow for potential TSA screening delays.)

After going through the body scanner, I was halted by a TSA agent, as I had come to expect. He explained that he needed to do a pat-down of my chest. In an effort to expedite things, I flat-out told him I was transgender, and that that was why the scanner reading didn’t match up with my presentation. Of course, no trans or non-binary person should feel obligated to out themselves in this manner, and I’m not sure what the reaction would have been had I stated this in a city that was less trans-friendly than San Francisco.

In any case, the agent immediately became apologetic, and asked if I wanted a female agent to screen me. I responded, truthfully, that I didn’t care who screened me. Because to have accepted his offer of being screened by a woman would be tantamount to saying that I was female, which I am not. He looked troubled, and called over a supervisor, misgendering me as “she” in the process (which I corrected, and he again apologized). I reiterated to the supervisor that I was transgender, and that I did not care who screened me. They also offered to screen me in private, which I declined.

The first TSA agent finally did a quick pat-down, looking embarrassed, and said that I could go. I did not enjoy being felt up any more than he appeared to enjoy doing it, but the agent’s gender was not the source of my discomfort. I was annoyed by the indignity of being held up and inspected for having an “anomalous” body, in a society that rigidly reinforces gender binaries to which even many cisgender people do not conform.

While this incident was mild compared with the treatment many trans people have suffered at the hands of the TSA (see the aforementioned blog post by Cary Gabriel Costello and article about Mia Satya), it still should not have happened at all. There was, however, a silver lining. As I was putting my shoes back on, a woman approached me, and said that it was terrible how I was treated. She even offered to be a witness if I wanted to file a complaint.

Though I was not thinking of filing a formal complaint, I thanked her for this act of allyship. It’s good to have people looking out for us trans folks, especially in today’s political climate. This is also why I insist on having my security screenings in public, where everyone can see.

Several days later, we arrived at the airport in Hartford, Connecticut for our return flight. Though it was 4:30 in the morning, the airport was packed, with extremely long lines at check-in. Our flight wasn’t due to depart for another two hours so I wasn’t too concerned, but while standing in line I was mentally rehearsing what to say if and when I got held up for additional screening again.

I went through the body scanner, and, as predicted, the (male) TSA agent indicated that I should wait. Then he asked me to lift my arms, did a rapid pat-down of my chest, and waved me on. I’m pretty sure it was against regulations to do a pat-down without explanation or warning, but given the long line of anxious people behind me, worried they would miss their flights, I wasn’t going to complain. That didn’t mean I was OK with being groped, however.

My partner Ziggy, who is genderqueer but cissexual (he’s OK with his male-assigned parts and is not interested in transitioning), has also been screened for failing to conform to gender stereotypes. He has long hair and often wears skirts, but was wearing pants and not presenting as particularly femme (to my eyes, anyway) on this date. But the community standards of Hartford, Connecticut are likely quite different from those of San Francisco, California. So the TSA agent pressed the pink button for him, and his genitals registered as an anomaly.

Ziggy enjoys traveling and flies much more often than I do, so in sheer terms of time this binary screening could be even more of an inconvenience for him than for me. But Ziggy does not experience dysphoria when being misgendered like I do. Being addressed as “Sir” by a TSA agent before going through the body scanner in San Francisco, then being called “she” by the agent on the other side of the scanner minutes later, caused me emotional distress beyond the uninvited and unwelcome touching of my breasts.

Sadly, there isn’t really anything I can or should do to prevent being groped by the TSA again. Unless I arrive at the airport in drag, I expect agents will continue to press that blue button. I’m not seeking top surgery, so my breasts will continue to register as anomalies. I could just stop flying altogether — tempting, as I do hate air travel so much — but that seems an extreme and unnecessary limitation on my freedom.

What needs to change is the TSA’s security theater that treats trans and gender non-conforming individuals (in addition to many other marginalized groups) as potential terrorists. Unfortunately, given today’s political climate, I predict such profiling will get worse before it gets better.